God’s Word is like one of those trust games where one person faces forward and begins to fall backward, waiting to be caught by the person behind them. Trust is a scary thing, because before the catch, you find yourself in a free fall and the adrenaline kicks in. But of course, the person in back is ready and waiting, and sure enough, they’ll catch you every time.
You probably think I’m going to say God’s Word is the safety net that catches you every time. But it’s not. It not only lets you fall, there is a sense in which it even kills you. This may sound harsh, but it’s true: and thanks be to God that it is! But if we are truly understand why it’s good news that the Word kills us, we need to first let God’s Word do it’s unpleasant work of putting us to death.
In today’s parable, Jesus described four different types of soil. We might compare our hearts to these four different soils, where the fertility level varies from time to time. Sometimes they’re like the path, sometimes they’re stony or thorn-infested, and other times, they’re more fertile. But any fertility is not of our own doing. Our corruption is so deep that we’re hopelessly fruitless. The prophet Isaiah cuts right to by telling us about a song God sang for his vineyard (Isaiah 5:1—7).
It begins as a love song. He sings about a lush vineyard on a very fertile hill. Prime real estate; you couldn’t ask for a better location. But that wasn’t all: the owner of the vineyard took every precaution imaginable. He dug it, cleared it of stones, and planted in it choice vines. If that weren’t enough, he even built a watchtower in the midst of it. This guy had what could only be considered an irrational compulsion to protect his vineyard. What more could he have possibly done to protect it?
But when harvest time came, sure enough, it produced bad fruit. You can understand the owner’s frustration. So then comes the verdict in Isaiah 6:5—6:
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
But as you probably guessed, that wasn’t really a story about a vineyard. It’s about you. The prophet continues:
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry! (Isa 5:7)
God saw wickedness, so He says: Now listen to what I’m going to do to you, O wicked vineyard: all of your defenses will be broken down. You will be trampled, made a waste. And no more wasting rain on that worthless land: I will command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
Is not my word like a fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? We all know about the danger of fire. That’s what God’s Word is like. And if you want to break a rock open, you need to use a hammer with quite a bit of force.
And the full force of God’s Law is precisely what’s needed to demolish stony and thorn infested hearts. You hear the Word, but like the seed that’s scattered on the path, it doesn’t always take root. Before you know it, the devil has come and snatched it up, leaving you in doubt about God’s ability or desire to help. Or your faith seems to thrive for a while, but eventually it withers and you lose your zeal. Or the cares of the world come and cause the thorns to grow, destroying any hope of a decent harvest.
So we get the death we deserve. God lets us get trampled, right along with St. Paul, just as Isaiah said. And probably none of us have been trampled as badly as the apostle. Listen again to what he says in 2 Corinthians 11:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches (v. 24—28).
We know God’s Word is powerful, even though we often suffer. Isaiah continues on to say it never returns empty, but accomplishes that which God purposes. And His first purpose is to put you to death. This is why He gave St. Paul the thorn in the flesh, and why He allows you to suffer. He would show you how helpless you are, that you might despair of yourself entirely and trust only in Him. Of course God doesn’t delight in this, but God loves you enough to discipline you, even to kill you. His Word shows you just how faithless you’ve become. It kills pride and boasting. Though our suffering doesn’t even begin to compare to St. Paul’s, how easily we stop trusting.
Why should you stop trusting in God’s Word just because it didn’t catch you when you were falling? Doesn’t God say to trust in Him no matter what, even when the hammer of His Word is smashing you to pieces? Didn’t He tell Abraham to trust Him even when he was told to kill his only Son? Isn’t the whole point of faith to not give up hope even when God looks like your enemy? Didn’t Jesus keep the faith even though His Father forsook Him on the cross?
God lets you fall and even puts your sinful flesh to death because He loves you. He loves you enough to not leave your heart in the condition He found it. The weeds need to be sprayed with pesticide. Make no mistake, the weeds hate that it kills them. The rocks don’t want to be dug out and cleared away. The last thing a dormant field wants to do is bear any fruit. It’s just fine doing nothing, and bearing fruit means change and hard work for the one who tends the vineyard. For sinners to bear good fruit means the death of the old. But in its place comes life, which is so much better: and that’s what the Word gives.
When you find yourself suffering and in the hour of death, look to Jesus. Look to the cross. Remember how God put the sin of the world, even your sin, on Him. Remember how God let things go so much further than anyone could ever had imagined—He not only allowed His Son to die, but then did nothing to comfort His disciples until Sunday. But then He made good on His promise to raise up His Son, the promise they had all along if only they had trusted it.
Cling to that Word. You have the same powerful Word that will never let you down, even though it doesn’t look like much—seeds never do—but remember that they don’t remain seeds. Trust God’s Word even as it puts you to death. Repent of the things that have gotten in the Word’s way. Let it crucify your sinful desires. Let it wash you and feed you. Let it restore you so that it can bring forth the fruits of faith in this life and lead you through death and into life.
Suffering and death go against every fiber of our being, but God asks you to trust Him even when you’re being trampled. Trampling and death will come one way or the other, so it’s best to be trampled along with Christ. He knows the feeling, and He promises never to leave you alone in your misery. If you’re going to suffer, Jesus is going to suffer with you. If you’re going to live, Jesus is going to be your life.
Life only comes by way of death. Seeds have to go into the ground, be buried, and finally disappear before something new can come forth in its place. The seed of the Word always does its work. After death, it brings life. So it was with Christ, and so it will be with you.
Soli Deo Gloria